Winter 2022-2023 Parlando Top Ten

It occurs to me that it may have been a while since I’ve reminded new readers what the Parlando Project is, has done, and tries to do. It started as an idea around 2015 to focus on something I’d done off and on for decades: to combine other people’s words, usually literary poetry designed to be seen on silent pages, with a variety of original music.

I did this not only because I think it’s fun, but because the process allows me to more deeply absorb some sense of what the poets are trying to convey. At least for me, I can read a poem with my eyes and sense that there’s something wonderful there — but then to read it aloud, perhaps even to sing it, allows me to inhabit it, to visit the environment inside it, as if one is deep inside some forest, awash at a water-brink, or walking down its street or inside some meaningful building.

Reading a poem silently is like looking at a picture. Performing it aloud is painting the picture with the words still wet.

Early in the Project many of these performances were with others, most often my long-time musical partner Dave Moore. For a number of reasons those opportunities have decreased. These days the typical musical setting here is composed, and all the parts played or scored, by myself. I’ve done a handful of pieces in the Project without instruments, but that’s unusual. I think that even though they are played by a one-man-band I want the words to have companions. Even the loneliest poems can have these here.

I do these pieces myself, not because I have great confidence or a high appraisal of my musicianship. Far from it. I compose and play the parts because I’m available. I’m an amiable contractor to myself, I enjoy playing different instruments, and I’m unafraid to dive into a variety of musical environments. My estimate is that most musicians who hear what I produce for the Parlando Project are unimpressed by this work, in that I almost never get responses from them when they are exposed to it.*  My guess is that is because I use simple ideas, and my realization of even these basic conceptions via my own playing has imperfections. My musical “thing” is more at participatory folk music or the punk/indie ethos — and though I try to produce good work here, and I’ve put effort into that, I don’t consider many of the Parlando Project pieces the best realization they could have. When I’ve taken to putting up chord sheets of some of the simpler acoustic guitar pieces here in the past year, I’m thinking that a better singer or player might take them to a better musical place.

Hepcats of Venus

Imaginary band gets down in beatnik cellar. Illustration shows my younger self & spouse in the center. W. H. Auden taps his cig on the ashtray in the foreground. Behind the drummer, Gertrude Stein considers Virgil Thomson.

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Now let’s get on to a brief rundown of the Parlando pieces that were most liked and listened to this past winter. I do this countdown style, from 10 to the most popular. The highlighted titles are links in case you’d like to see what I wrote about the pieces when I first presented it.

10. All Souls Night by Hortense Flexner.  Long-time readers here will know I like to go beyond “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” here, and this spooky piece by a little-remembered author from the time of WWI continued to be listened to long after Halloween.

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9. “Uncle Sam Says” by Waring Cuney.  This one, jumping forward to the WWII era, is almost cheating, as Cuney, a friend of Langston Hughes, engaged here in straight-out songwriting with bluesman Josh White. I’ve been playing a bit more bottleneck slide guitar this winter, and that’s what I used to accompany this message song about a segregated military.

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8. “Now Winter Nights Enlarge” by Thomas Campion.  Speaking of songwriters: poet, musician, and Elizabethan-age physician Campion also intended this to be sung — although, as with “Uncle Sam Says,”  I didn’t use the original music for my performance.

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7. “The House of Hospitalities” by Thomas Hardy.  A poet who spanned significant chunks of the 19th and 20th centuries, Hardy was well-versed in poems of rich remembrances, as in this Christmas season memory of holiday celebrations past and gone.

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6. “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today” by Emily Dickinson.  One of three appearances by this crucial American genius, this one a jolly remembrance of a cooperative harvest time in Amherst.

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5. “I’m Afraid to Own a Body” by Emily Dickinson.  An opening line or two in a poem can grab even the most inattentive reader sometimes, and this poem’s opening pair of lines certainly did so for me this winter.

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4. “Fairy Song” by William Butler Yeats.  Like many a Yeats poem, this one beguiles you and me with its lovely word music. Then I read the play whereupon the poem appears and discovered that its context is exactly that for the song’s singing fairy: a beguiling away of a distressed person from their heart, hearth, and home. That wind that opens this poem is chilling once you know.

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3. “I felt my life with both my hands” by Emily Dickinson.  I cannot say authoritatively what Dickinson intended the context of this poem to be, but I read it as an examination of body dysphoria, though I’m unsure if anyone else has “read” her poem that way. As I have sometimes done, I’ve performed this with what I call an “Inline Epigraph,” quoting a line from a Lou Reed’s song “Candy Says”  before the concluding section of Dickinson’s text in my performance. I often think of poems as being in conversation with each other.

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2. Railroad Avenue by Langston Hughes.  I spent an enjoyable but inconclusive time searching for the “real” Railroad Avenue, thinking it could be like Van Morrison’s Cyprus Avenue or a NYC address in a Frank O’Hara poem. Couldn’t find it. May be it’s only mapped in Hughes’ imagination, a construction for the purposes of the poem. Long-time reader rmichaelroman reminded us in comments that America’s separations often are lined by being right in one’s memories from the “wrong side of the tracks.”

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1. “I’m Gonna Make Love to my Widow ‘fore I’m Gone” by Frank Hudson.  Another bottleneck guitar piece that readers and listeners liked a lot this winter. Well — a self-penned piece about good old-fashioned winter randiness made it to the top of the Top Ten. Go figure. They’re talking single digit wind-chills and a March snowstorm as this week ends up here in Minnesota. Codger cuddling is carbon-free heating people!

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*I ascribe this to politeness on their part. I tell myself that I overvalue the audacity and aims of what I do, when simple competence with simple ideas might be preferable.

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